Monday, May 14, 2012

Beam Me Down Scotty

Ahhh, those guys knew how to do special effects! In a modern evangelical landscape where seeker sensitivity has gone mad it would seem only natural to stay away from every conceivable Star Trek illustration. Though I am not, nor ever will be a “Trekkie” (why learn Klingon when Hebrew and Greek are hard enough as it is), Captain Kirk’s iconic phrase “beam me up Scotty” has become a catch cry for those of us who need a rapid evacuation from a foreign situation.

But the Bible interpreter needs just the opposite. In order to rightly understand Scripture in its full context there is a cultural bridge that must be crossed. Rather than evacuate a situation that is foreign to us, the exegete regularly needs to be teleported (or beamed down) into the historical cultural setting of the text he is trying to faithfully handle. J. Scott Duvall says that:

The Christian today is separated from the biblical audience by differences in culture, language, situation, time, and often covenant. These differences are a river that hinders us from moving straight from meaning in their context to meaning in ours. The width of the river, however, varies from passage to passage . . . It is obviously important to know just how wide the river is before we start trying to construct a principlizing bridge across it.

The Toolbox
When reconstructing an historical background our first port of call should always be the text itself that we are referring to. From this we can piece together many pieces to the hermeneutical puzzle. Carefully reading and re-reading the surrounding text or entirety of that particular book of the Bible will usually yield many clues. We may also find parallel passages in other books of the Bible. The Chronicles parallel much of Samuel and Kings. It is not unusual to find a passage from one of the prophets having a corresponding historical information in narrative found elsewhere. The book of Acts has “crossover” points with Pauline Epistles and we even have the four Gospel accounts which complement each other so beautifully in giving multiple camera angles on the same event.

There are times, however, when the interpreter may need to draw on other tools at his disposal. Most commentaries contain vital information regarding who the author was, when he wrote it, who he was writing to, the historical circumstances, and the author’s purpose in writing. Bible Dictionaries and Encyclopedias can provide tremendous help in our excavations of Scripture.
Geographical research can also serve the exegete well in adding power and dimension to his preaching. Drama and impact can be heightened when we know how far Jesus had to travel to get from His tomb to Emmaus Road or the average speed required, and calories burned, for Elijah to run from Beersheba to Mount Horeb during forty days of purpose fasting. Bible Atlases can really get the job done here.

The Goalposts
Reconstructing the culture, customs, and circumstances of an ancient civilization requires that we, the interpreter, understand the original situation that instigated the Scriptural account. Primarily, we want to know the circumstances surrounding the author and his audience. The interpreter becomes an investigator trying to piece together and recreate the drama as it originally happened.

The interpreter should seek to determine the date that the biblical book was written. This helps greatly in ascertaining what important historical events had transpired (or were transpiring) when the text was written. When this is known, obscure happenings can come to life and bring significant meaning.

It is also important to know who the author of the book was and who his audience was. This brings many relational and circumstantial factors into play. How is the author connected to Jesus? Is he in prison? Is his audience in the midst of intense persecution even to the point of death? This sort of research is vital in our historical immersion.

We should also seek to discover the purpose for the book being written. Historical and cultural information help to paint a clearer picture of the motivating factors and grounds for the book being written in the first place. Knowing the political situation, the customs of that time period, the state of the surrounding cultures, and the spiritual health of that society, all help the exegete to faithfully handle the text and beam his audience down into the world he has re-created!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Tragic Confession

You have heard or suspected some unkind or slanderous rumor about me. Whatever it was it was nowhere near the truth. The truth is so much worse than anything you could have possibly heard or imagined. For me to try and defend my reputation against anything so trivial would be ridiculous!

The truth is my premeditated crimes were so heinous and malicious that they resulted in choosing to fatally execute an innocent man. And not just any man, but a man that was the nearest and dearest, bravest, most loving, most compassionate, and most perfect man in all of history. And not a humane execution but a tortuous excruciatingly painful death of the foulest humiliation in front of His own mother and before His very Father! That Jesus forgives me knowing the truth about me is miraculous! To say that I owe Him my life is such an understatement it is almost shameful to claim. My offering is so infinitely small by comparison yet I live with such joy and gratitude that I cannot explain it. You may have heard or suspected some unkind or slanderous rumor about me - whatever it was it was nowhere near the truth.

(Author unknown)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hazards On The Hermeneutical Highway

There are three major categories of mishandling Scripture:

1. Mis-interpretation - ascribing the wrong meaning to a passage. This is the most disastrous because it involves getting the interpretation completely wrong.
2. Sub-interpretation - failing to ascertain the full meaning of a passage. Nothing erroneous is said in this scenario but it does involve erring on the side of too little information, especially if an important point is missed.
3. Super-interpretation - attributing more to a passage than actually exists. This is the most dangerous because it involves a mixture of correct interpretation with some fantasy elements. We need to be extra careful with this because people often have a tendency to lower their discernment radar if the interpreter starts out soundly before veering into heresy land.

The most common hermeneutical problems in modern day evangelical churches can be clearly seen via a simple perusal of the surrounding text. One classic example of this would be in Matthew 18:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)

“When two or three gather in God’s Name He is there among us. Whatever we bind and loose on earth shall be bound and loosed in heaven.” This was a very popular saying in the Pentecostal church that I attended for ten years. I would have heard this quoted hundreds of times and almost always at every prayer meeting. I don’t think it is entirely incorrect to believe that God is among us when we gather in His Name, but it is amazing that, considering the number of times this verse was quoted, I never heard it in its context. If we start just three verses earlier the context becomes very clear even to the lightweight theologian:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them." (Matthew 18:15-20 ESV)

What is the context here? Church discipline! Church discipline is the true Christian’s friend and the false Christian’s reality check. It restores the fallen brother and removes the false convert. God, in His kindness, delays His wrath, giving lost sinners time to repent. In this time when God restrains His wrath (that will come one day) He has given the church the authority to deal with unrepentant sin in the congregation. Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 5 that God deals with those in the world and the church deals with those inside church. And sometimes the church casts people out into the world to protect the believers and in the trust that God will now deal with them. And here God tells us that He is with church leaders when they practice church discipline in accordance with Matthew 18:15-17.

The good news for the layman wrestling with alarm bells every time he hears his pastor preach in “mega-church suburbia” is that most hermeneutical errors fall into the same category as the example above. A plain reading of the surrounding text usually detects the common error of simply ignoring the context of an easily understandable passage.

But wait there’s more! There are other hazards that regularly appear on the narrow hermeneutical highway. The popular phrase “my life verse” is the description many people give to a Bible verse that they like and then personalize in application to themselves. And the Behemoth of modern day “life verses” would have to be Jeremiah 29:11.

This may be therapeutic to our self esteem but is it a reflection of biblical truth applied personally? Reading this verse in its context and wider context we learn that this is a part of a particular message, to a particular people, at a particular time, in a particular situation. What was the situation of Jeremiah 29:11?

Israel had been taken by the Babylonians into captivity. The Temple in Jerusalem was in ruins and the king had had his eyes cut out. The glory of Israel as a nation was finished. But in the midst of this terrible situation – God speaks:

4 "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD. 10 "For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. 15 "Because you have said, 'The LORD has raised up prophets for us in Babylon,' 16 thus says the LORD concerning the king who sits on the throne of David, and concerning all the people who dwell in this city, your kinsmen who did not go out with you into exile: 17 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, behold, I am sending on them sword, famine, and pestilence, and I will make them like vile figs that are so rotten they cannot be eaten. 18 I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them, (Jeremiah 29:4-18 emphasis mine)

It would be possible to spend several lessons on this passage alone but for the sake of brevity I will give just four points to consider:

1. Why do people think they can claim verse 11 as their own "life verse" but decide that verses 17 and 18 do not apply to them?
2. When God speaks in verse 11 remember that verse 4 shows us that He has His foot on their neck while He is saying it.
3. The people receiving the promise in verse 11 will not even live to see its fulfillment (it will take 70 years).
4. The reason Israel was in Babylonian slavery was because they had spent their time listening to prophets who told them things they liked to hear.

It is foolish to read Jeremiah 29:11 as a personal message from God to us as individuals. But there is something far greater that we learn from this story in its true context - that God does not abandon His people! We need to beware of this seductive trap in personalizing verses that do not necessarily apply to us.

Another hazard that is more difficult to detect is that of reading the meaning of one passage into another. This practice is rampant in the field of eschatology as different camps try to make the entire Canon fit within their apocalyptic parameters. While the practice of using explicit passages to help interpret unclear passages of Scripture can have validity, it must be done so only when there is a clearly defined connection between the two.

This leads into another more sophisticated hazard, that of reading one’s theological preferences into a passage of Scripture. Professor Matt Waymeyer (my Hermeneutics lecturer at The master's Seminary) readily identifies two ways of reading a theological system into a passage:

First, when an interpreter finds a discrepancy between his theological beliefs and a given passage of Scripture, he may be tempted to twist that passage to fit his theology rather than let his theology be corrected – or at least refined – by Scripture. Secondly, sometimes an interpreter will simply read more into a given passage than is actually there in the text itself. In this case, his theology may be true and biblical, but it is not taught in the passage under consideration. Both are examples of eisegesis.

When Waymeyer refers to “eisegesis”, he is talking about the precise opposite of exegesis. Exegesis is the extraction of meaning out of a text while eisegesis involves imposing one’s meaning onto the text. I think it is safe to say that the prosperity preacher who equates the donkey Jesus rode on with the contemporary equivalent of a Ferrari is not practicing exegesis!

Another ever-present danger on the hermeneutical highway is that of our own personal experiences. What we feel and sense does not necessarily define God’s reality and we need to be aware of that when reading a passage that we think can be defined in terms of what we have previously experienced. Just because I am physically healthy and materially wealthy does not mean that 3 John 2 is an all encompassing doctrinal statement on God’s will for the health and wealth of every Christian. Our experiences must be defined and understood through the lens of Scripture and not the other way around.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The God Of The Bible Has No Problem Explaining Himself

We live in a church era where the common mantra is "you have your interpretation and I have my interpretation and no one can know for sure so lets just all take our bats and go home". It has become our own version of "pleading the fifth". Statements like this (and I have heard many "church leaders" say words to this effect) make their own doctrinal allegiance to the authority of Scripture as useless and meaningless. Such claims amount to nothing less than a denial of the inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture itself.

The Apostle Paul wrote that “God is not the author of confusion” (1 Corinthians 14:33a) and this would certainly be consistent with Him giving fallen men a written revelation of Himself. It becomes one of the many ways that a Holy and Righteous God stoops down to sinful and fallen men. Professor Matt Waymeyer of "The Master's Seminary" writes:

Because the Bible was given to reveal truth rather than conceal it, the interpreter must assume the overall clarity of God’s Word. Often referred to as the perspicuity of Scripture, this means that the divine intention of the Bible was/is basically clear and comprehensible to its original author, its original audience, and its contemporary readers. This is not to say that all parts of Scripture are equally clear or that there are no difficult passages to interpret (2 Pet 3:16), and this does not deny that later revelation provides a fuller picture of the subject addressed in earlier prophecy. But it does mean that the basic meaning of biblical prophecy was intelligible and could be understood when it was originally revealed.

This perspicuity of God’s Holy Word became increasingly undermined as can be seen even in the later stages of the New Testament with the rise of Gnosticism and appeals to “secret knowledge” belonging to spiritual elitists. We see this issue clearly raised in Jude’s Epistle when he unmasks the modus operandi of these wolves that were infiltrating the body of Christ as early as the first century AD:

Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 8 ESV emphasis mine)

Even in Jude’s time we see false teachers who are making claims of dreams that give them deeper knowledge. We see this today in the Charismatic movement and especially within the Word Faith factions of that movement. What is implied by this Gnostic knowledge? That the plain surface meaning is not enough. They are saying that deeper, hidden knowledge is where true spirituality is really at. And it continues into the present day unabated:

Joyce Meyer goes on to tell her hearers soon after this that they should not go looking in the Bible for this teaching on the atonement because they won't find it there. Joyce tells them that this special knowledge only comes through "personal revelation". Aside from the biblical fact that Joyce Meyer is unqualified (as a woman, see 1 Timothy 2-3) to stand in a pulpit, such ridiculous claims do not even warrant further debate.

The various factors of false teaching, refutation of false teaching, theological agendas, and the need to harmonize difficult Scriptural passages all impacted on the practice of hermeneutics in the early church era. During the Patristic Period (A.D. 100-590) the early church fathers placed great emphasis on allegorizing biblical passages. This was the “search for hidden or secret meaning that underlies the actual words of a given text – a meaning that is unrelated to the more obvious meaning of the text.” The early church fathers also began to place greater value and emphasis on the traditional interpretation of a passage being the correct one rather than evaluating a traditional interpretation in the light of what the Scripture says.

The Medieval Period (A.D. 590-1500) saw these ideas develop further and really set the scene for what Roman Catholicism holds to in its present form. Biblical students focused more on studying what the church fathers had to say about any given portion of the biblical text and placed almost no importance on exegeting the text itself. The Bible was no longer the ultimate authority because that was now trumped by how church tradition interpreted that Bible. And this tradition was primarily driven by allegorization as church tradition continually found deeper (and more self serving) meaning from texts that spoke plainly and differently to these “allegorical innovations”.

The Reformation Period (1500-1650) was a revolution in the handling of Scripture. With a renewed emphasis on the supreme authority of Scripture (Sola Scriptura was their battle cry), the Reformers trashed Rome’s “creative accounting” in favor of a plain reading of the biblical text in its original languages. This was a pivotal moment in church history. Martin Luther was the man who ignited the Reformation with his brazen defiance of Popes and Roman religiosity. Luther maintained that Scripture was its own best interpreter and that interpretation should be driven by this concept.

The period following the Reformation (1650-1800) saw the rise of Pietism, and with it, an approach to interpretation focused on careful grammatical-historical analysis of the Scriptures in their original languages. They could see that the God of the Bible did not have a problem explaining Himself and a natural reading of the text, in context, could yield comprehensible results to the recipient when read in this natural way. Rationalism was also on the rise at this time and elevated the human intellect to the point where the Rationalists thought that Scripture needed to conform to their reasoning, and the parts that refused were simply ignored or rejected.

During the Modern Period (1800-Present), rationalism gave birth to what would become theological liberalism. The Higher-Critical Method was brazen intellectual snobbery. These people cared nothing for the authority of Scripture. Their interpretive focus avoided the pursuit of discovering what God was saying through His Word, and instead focused on delusional attempts at trying to explain the “editorial process” that caused Scripture to appear in the form that they found it in.

The 20th Century gave rise to the Reader-Response Method where the author of the text was not allowed into the discussion on what the text was saying. These people considered it far more important to decide what the text was saying to them. What fun can be had by reinterpreting Reader-Response conclusions in even more fanciful and self serving ways at the expense of their own self importance.
D.A. Carson wrote as far back as 1984 on this important shift in the mode of attack on conservative evangelicalism when he said there had been a change in the theological climate over the preceding four decades. He wrote:

At the risk of oversimplification, one could argue that the generation of conservative Christians before the present one faced opponents who argued in effect that the Bible is not trustworthy, and only the ignorant or blind could claim it is. In the present generation, there are of course many voices that say the same thing; but there are new voices that loudly insist our real problem is hermeneutical and exegetical. (D.A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies p18)

This sounds ominously like the “emergent church” which would begin to appear more than a decade after Carson penned those words. The enemy within is far more dangerous than the enemy without. A Richard Dawkins who rails on God, Christianity, and the Bible is an obvious enemy that we can see coming well in advance. A Brian MacLaren, on the other hand, is a far more dangerous threat because he masquerades as one of us and claims to uphold the authority of Scripture all the while being hell-bent on redefining so much of what it plainly says.

If we want to understand a book in the best possible way then we need to ask the author exactly what he was saying. So too with Scripture, we need to know the authorial intent if we are to interpret it rightly. And Scripture is unique in that it has what we call Dual Authorship. If I was to hand write you a letter with my finest Shepherd’s Conference fountain pen, would you say that the letter was written by my fountain pen? Likewise, throughout history, God has used special men as writing tools in His hand to bring about His written revelation. Some of the distinctive qualities of these human fountain pens are evident, but they are transcended by the divine voice that speaks through them. Though this analogy is not a watertight analogy it can be somewhat helpful.

Throughout the Bible we see that its text regularly presented as both the words of God and the words of man (2 Samuel 23:2, 1 Kings 14:18, 16:12, 16:34, 2 Kings 9:36, 14:25, 1 Chronicles 17:3, Jeremiah 1:9, 37:2, Zechariah 7:7,12, Luke 1:70, Acts 1:16, 2:16-17, 3:18,21, 4:25, 28:25, Romans 1:1-2, 1 Corinthians 9:8-10, 14:37, Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, 4:8, 4:15, Hebrews 1:1, 1 Peter 1:10-12, 2 Peter 3:2, Rev 1:1-3). This fact is most clearly nailed down in Paul’s second letter to Timothy and in Peter’s second Epistle:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 KJV)

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. (2 Peter 1:20-21 KJV)

The fact of Dual Authorship has major implications for the right practice of sound hermeneutics. Waymeyer explains this when he says that:

The dual authorship of Scripture ultimately forms the foundation of Bible interpretation, for upon it rest five aspects of Scripture, which, in turn, lead to specific principles for interpreting God’s Word. These five aspects are the overall unity of Scripture, the overall clarity of Scripture, the single meaning of Scripture, the contextual nature of Scripture, and the human language of Scripture.

For this reason the Grammatical-Historical method of Bible interpretation, with its emphasis on examining the context and interpreting the content of the passage, has maintained a healthy following through the recent centuries of hermeneutical turbulence. It is the “no brainer” approach to interpreting the Bible because the God of the Bible has never had a problem explaining Himself.